This was supposed to be the year the Minnesota Vikings would get their lumps in the opening round of the NFC playoffs, not in the Super Bowl. After all, this time Minnesota would be playing the Los Angeles Rams in sunny California, not on the frozen tundra of the upper Midwest. And the Vikings wouldn't have Fran Tarkenton available to pick the Rams apart with his dinky sideline flips and sliding scrambles.
So, the final score: Minnesota 14, Los Angeles 7. True, the Rams, who came into the game saying that all their excuses were behind them, played terribly, not scoring until the last minute of the game. But they also were betrayed by their expected ally—the weather. It rained and rained and rained in Los Angeles Monday afternoon, and the Coliseum field quickly turned into a quagmire. "The conditions were more suited to us than to them," admitted Minnesota Coach Bud Grant.
Actually, the Vikings brought the rain with them. Searching for warmth, Grant flew his team from frosty Minnesota to Tucson, Ariz, for four days of workouts before the game. It had hardly rained in Tucson since September, but it rained two of the four days the Vikings were in town. Minnesota practiced anyway. "The raindrops there are small ones," Place-kicker Fred Cox said.
To all purposes, Minnesota put the game away on its very first possession, Chuck Foreman scoring on a five-yard run at the end of a 70-yard drive. In that series Quarterback Bob Lee, who was subbing for the injured Tarkenton, completed five of five passes for 57 yards—just as Tarkenton probably would have done. The reason for the Vikings' early air raid was the weather, not some weakness in the L.A. defense.
"If you play on bad fields, they're going to get worse," said Grant, who became an expert on bad fields when he coached in Canada. "We wanted to throw early and get any passing advantages we could, because late in the game we knew it would be difficult to throw the ball. On a good field a seven-or 14-point lead isn't very much, but on a bad field it gets to be monumental."
Lee never completed another pass. He never had to. The Vikings scored their second touchdown early in the fourth quarter after a 40-yard drive that consisted of 10 straight running plays. Foreman and Robert Miller, who replaced the injured Brent McClanahan, plowed the ball to the one-yard line, and Sammy Johnson carried it across. That was it. Minnesota threw just three passes in the second half, and ran the ball on each of its last 25 plays. In the third quarter the-Vikings' ground game ate up almost 12½ minutes on the clock, leaving the Rams with only 2½ minutes to play catch-up.
L.A.'s Lawrence McCutcheon ran effectively early in the game, but Haden couldn't get the Rams into the end zone. Trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, L.A. had a first down at the Minnesota five. Back to pass, Haden found his main receivers covered, and, in desperation, lobbed the ball deep toward Tight End Charle Young in the left corner of the end zone.
But Young stopped running just as Haden uncorked his pass, and Minnesota Cornerback Nate Allen was all alone and in perfect position for the interception.
"I thought Charle was going to the corner, but he hooked up, which is what he's supposed to do if he's not open," said Haden. "He did the right thing and I did the wrong thing. To me, that was the key play of the game. It was a bad, bad play on my part. I should never have thrown it." Or he should have thrown the ball onto the Harbor Freeway.
Haden said he was responsible for the Rams' ineptness. "I blame the entire game on myself," he said. "I didn't execute at quarterback, and consequently our offense didn't move." Haden had two more passes intercepted—one at the Minnesota four-yard line with 5½ minutes to play in the last quarter, the other, a Hail Mary heave, at the Minnesota two on the game's final play after the Rams had recovered an onside kick.
Now Minnesota plays Dallas for the NFC championship on New Year's Day. If history keeps repeating itself, the weather will be miserable all week in Dallas, and the Vikings will get to the Super Bowl for the fifth time. In four tries Minnesota has never lost an NFC championship game.